Same old song and dance

It was one of the worst-kept secrets in the industry. As soon as the invites hit our inboxes, the word was out on the street that we’d finally get to see Battlefield 4 for the first time at GDC. Renting out a massive theater at the Metreon in San Francisco, EA shuffled in some of the biggest names in videogame development. And, somehow, I snuck in, too.

With the ever-present cloud of next-gen systems looming on the horizon, I admit that I didn’t know what to expect. But I do know that I definitely wasn’t expecting what we did get. After waiting on line for close to an hour—and another 30 minutes shuffling through the door—I witnessed EA and DICE show, quite simply, one of the most disappointing 15-minute game reveals I’ve ever had to uncomfortably sit through.

Things didn’t start off horribly, though. In fact, those first few visuals from the brand-new Frostbite 3 engine had me doing a double-take, since they were so lifelike. Of course, these visuals were also displayed on the highest-end PC money could buy, so 90 percent of the Battlefield-loving audience won’t experience what I did—nor will I when it comes time to review the game later this year.

This also clearly shows just where DICE’s focus is when it comes to developing Battlefield 4, because their claims of looking to make the game more “human, dramatic, and believable” just were straight up not true once events actually began to unfold. If anything, this reveal did nothing but point to lowest-common denominator game development, where developers hope that impressive visuals will hide the fact their game probably fails to provide the depth of content most gamers crave.

In regards to making the game more “human, dramatic, and believable,” the first thing you’d look for is character development. Being able to immerse yourself in the characters is critical to enjoying most media of any sort. Yet Battlefield 4 looks to deliver a group of cold, distant characters once again that will likely be forgotten by the time the end credits roll—and this came across in many instances. 

The demo began with the four soldiers in your group—the player character included—sinking in a submerged vehicle. Your commanding officer is trapped against the dented frame of the car and his seat. He orders you to shoot the window out, leave him behind, and get the rest of the group to safety. With reluctance, you do this before a flashback explains how these soldiers got to this position in the first place.

During the entire transition, all I could think of was this: “Why would I leave this guy to drown if he meant something to me?” It’s a fact that, as subjective as it is, many people consider drowning one of the worst ways to die. Wouldn’t it make sense that if you really cared about this person—or had any shred of humanity—after working with this man for who knows how long, that you’d put him out of his misery and not let him suffer before escaping? This was just the beginning of the awful storytelling I saw.

About halfway through the flashback sequence, you’re racing up the shell of an abandoned factory, hoping to be rescued with the vital intel you’ve collected. Before you can reach the top of the building, however, an enemy helicopter comes in for the kill. Your allied chopper is at the top of the building already waiting for you, but the enemy helicopter decides that it needs to shoot you—the tiniest, most difficult target to hit—instead of the chopper you’re headed toward. If America’s real enemies were this stupid, we wouldn’t be so hated much the world over.

But this could also just have been to help amp up the “drama” aspect that Battlefield 4 looks to focus on. That’s fine. Videogames need a little disbelief in them, although that goes against that entire “believable” thing they were going for as well. So, either way, they screwed up here.

OK, so the enemy helicopter finally figures out the proper target to aim for and blows your friendly copter out of the sky. Along with all the shooting it directed toward you, this causes the rest of the factory to collapse on itself. Somehow, because this is all so believable, you fall several stories and get buried under a ton of rubble. But you walk away unharmed. In fact, three of your four squadmates are perfectly fine. 

Now we go back to this “dramatic” aspect. Your commanding officer (it’s clearly not this guy’s day) has his leg pinned. With a little bit of realism here (finally), he talks about how his leg’s been completely crushed by the concrete. He hands you a combat knife and tells you that you need to cut the leg off. This is also not unheard of. What is unheard of is that, like a samurai sword through wet paper, you easily cut through his leg with this teeny-tiny knife. Combat armor, skin, muscle, tissue, and tendons are all cut through in an instant. Ignoring that we never see or hear anyone cauterize or clot up the new wound that would cause most men to bleed out, I think it would take a bit longer than a split-second to do this maneuver. 

At the very least, DICE had the good taste to have our character look away so as to not show players what could easily have been a gruesome scene. But you talk about building humanity into your characters? This was another failed opportunity. Have the player look at the commanding officer’s face. Tell him how sorry you are this is happening. Put some dialogue in there to help convey the power of the emotion that comes from a guy having to cut off his buddy’s limb!

Instead, we quickly flow right into our next dunderheaded story beat, where a random security guard comes to explore the giant explosion and collapsed building. In this part of the world, the last thing that most people would do when they see American soldiers is to want to help them out. We’re not really welcomed with beds of rose petals whenever we go to certain parts of the world—this coming across as one of them. Then, you steal his car, which leads to a stereotypical driving sequence that brings you back to doing your best Ariel impersonation under the sea.

And let’s not forget: Aside from the story, the action we saw was nothing special. It’s the same stuff we get in every other military shooter. Some cool group mechanics, some slow-mo moments that try and fail to build tension, a little bit of gameplay variety with a driving sequence, and I’m bored just writing that damn sentence—never mind playing it.

But you must be asking yourselves: “Why hasn’t he mentioned multiplayer?” Because they didn’t show us any of the multiplayer! The best we got was a brief mention of how the gap between multiplayer and single-player would be bridged. The only thing I saw that hinted at this was beating up some guy and stealing his dog tags. For a brief instant, there were a few murmurs of delight in the crowd. But that raised the question in my mind: “Why the heck would I care about a single-player NPCs dog tags?!”

The graphics are next level, for sure—but the story’s still wallowing in the muck. It seems that after Bad Company 1 and 2, DICE forgot what it meant to actually provide an entertaining single-player campaign. The action is run-of-the-mill, and the thing most folks really care about, the multiplayer, was noticeably absent. Of course, with all this being said, this was a 15-minute demo of what looked like the first level of the single-player campaign. Things can certainly change once we get longer demonstrations, hands-on previews, and the final review code.

But since this is all EA and DICE decided to show us, that’s all I can comment on—and what I saw had me shaking my head as I walked out of the theater.